Women on Bikes SoCal

Q & A with Toronto Bicycle Maven Yvonne Bambrick by April Economides

Kensington Bike Rack PhotoCredit on the photo.jpg

On a recent trip to Toronto, I had the pleasure of spending time with bicycling advocate Yvonne Bambrick. Yvonne is a bicycling celebrity around town, largely because of her role as the former (and founding) executive director of the Toronto Cyclists Union, the city’s primary bicycling advocacy organization.

In that role, she increased awareness of bicycling and the responsibilities of all to safely share the road, successfully engaged the provincial Ministry of Transportation to update the Ontario Driver’s Handbook to include bicycle and pedestrian safety, grew the union’s membership to 1,200, won a hard-fought bike lane battle on a major downtown arterial road, launched Toronto’s first mobile bicycle service station, and fielded more than 500 media interviews, among other accomplishments.

As a car-free bicycle commuter, she sees first-hand the economic benefits bicycling brings local business districts, and now is the director of two Business Improvement Areas (BIAs) where she brings her urban commuter and placemaking sensibilities to a traditionally parking-centric role.

It’s always exciting to meet fellow bicycling advocates who have also/currently work for business associations, so I sat down with her to ask her some questions:

AE: Anyone visiting your website quickly learns you are a multi-talented woman, involved in many aspects of Toronto’s bicycling and business scene. Please give us the skinny on what you’re up to these days.

YB: Well thanks, I really enjoy the various types of work that I do – they are all connected in some way. For the past year now, I’ve been working as the part-time coordinator for both the Kensington Market and Forest Hill Village BIAs. I also continue to speak and occasionally teach about the benefits and politics of cycling transportation, and work as a documentary and portrait photographer. Working so closely with this enormous variety of business owners is allowing me to gain unique insights into the needs, interests, misconceptions and concerns of multiple generations of independent merchants and entrepreneurs on a variety of subjects.

AE: It’s impressive you’re the only staff person for both BIAs – that must be a lot on your plate. What kind of work do you do for the two organizations, and is any of it bicycling related?

YB: I work on a number of different projects simultaneously – from the development of marketing materials and grant applications, to infrastructure repair to the production of events. In Kensington Market I’ve just wrapped up several months of community consultation around the frequency and type of neighborhood street closure events, and in Forest Hill Village we’re planning to begin the underground utility repairs required prior to a full streetscape redesign that will make the neighborhood more pedestrian and bicycle friendly.

I’m also connecting with city transportation staff about the addition of five much needed on-street bike corrals in Kensington Market. With so many customers and visitors arriving by bike, and limited sidewalk space to add more of Toronto’s signature post and ring bike racks, the market has struggled for years with inadequate bike parking. When combined with the sculptural bike parking at the top of the market that I project managed in 2009, we’ll have added about 60 spots once the corrals are in. I think both neighborhoods, and in particular the next generation of business owners, are beginning to better understand that bikes mean business.

AE: What additional bicycle initiatives do you want to see Toronto business districts and businesses adopt?

YB: I’d love to see a Bike Friendly Business campaign take root. The City has been holding the Bike Friendly Business Awards for the past 20 years, but we don’t yet have any type of citywide ‘bike friendly’ designation that businesses of all sizes can strive for. I’d also like to see a greater uptake on the creation of secure indoor bike parking, in particular in larger office buildings and shopping centers. I hear stories fairly often about there still being rules against bringing bicycles inside certain buildings for no apparent reason. That’s quite a deterrent from riding, in particular in areas where on-street parking is limited or non-existent. Outreach to property managers and owners could probably help resolve this issue.

AE: Toronto’s 2009 study of the popular Bloor Street business district showed pedestrians and bicyclists spend more money in the district than drivers, especially those walkers and bicyclists who live nearby. What lessons can other cities learn from Bloor Street?

YB: The results of the Bloor St. study were hugely significant, primarily because this was the first study to be undertaken in Toronto that showed very clearly that bicyclists and pedestrians are good for business. It completely refuted the widely held belief that most customers (money) arrive by car, and that car parking trumps all.

This past century has seen the automobile become so culturally ingrained as a symbol of status, wealth, freedom and sex appeal, and our cities so completely transformed in order to accommodate the swift throughput and easy movement of motor vehicles, that it is no wonder most people believe the hype. Thankfully, this is starting to change. What we saw on Bloor St., and I believe similar statistics would emerge in other comparably dense, street-level commercial districts, is that many customers arrive by various means other than the automobile.

I believe that ‘consumers’ (citizens) are also increasingly interested in supporting local small businesses – the shops down the road that you can walk or bike to, where you get to know the owner or employees, and can see that you’re supporting the local economy and contributing to the vibrancy of your community.

AE: What parting words of wisdom can you share on why bikes are good for business?

YB: The less money people spend on the purchase, maintenance, storage, fines, insurance, gas, repairs, etcetera of a motor vehicle, the more money they have to invest in the local economy!

Fun Facts About Yvonne Bambrick:

One of her favorite…

…Places in Toronto: Kensington Market & Toronto Islands

…Foods: Picnic

…Musicians: Jennifer Castle/Castlemusic

…Famous people: Strombo

…Words: Balance

…Bikes: My Batavus workhorse

…Artists: BGL

…Writers: Momentum & Dandyhorse magazine contributors

Old School Localism by April Economides

April Economidesweb.jpg

April in front of the Berlin Coffee House on 4th Street, a "Bike-Friendly" business in the Long Beach East Village "Bike-Friendly Business District

When I was 16, growing up in Long Beach, California, I’d drive – not walk – two very short blocks to pick up a gallon of milk or cuppa joe in a disposable cup. When my friends and I wanted to shop, we drove to a mall on a traffic-jammed freeway to buy clothes made in China from fluorescent-lit chain stores. I ate bagel dogs from CostCo and fried chicken from KFC.

Nowadays….my life in the LBC is a little different. My daughter and I commute everywhere via bike and foot and don’t own a car. We shop locally, eat healthfully, use reusable food and beverage containers, buy most of our clothes second-hand and have everything we need within biking distance. And it’s so much more fun.

None of this impresses my Greek grandparents. In the “old country,” living this way wasn’t a choice but a necessity. Just as they smiled at me when I tried to teach them about ‘the three R’s’ (after all, they explained, they’ve been practicing ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ for decades), I was surprised when a colleague claimed green building was “invented” in the 1970’s. We’re so disconnected from our earth – our home – we forget the very first dwellings were as green as buildings can be: made solely out of materials from the earth and designed strategically with sun and wind in mind (fancy words for “HVAC”).

Aside from the immigrant necessity to live lightly, this is just common sense and economic, my Republican grandparents asserted. Why throw something away you can reuse? Why pay money to drive to buy toxic-sprayed produce when you can grow your own organic and better tasting fruits and veggies at home, for free? Why drive to work and pay for a gym membership when you can bike to work and save time and money and enjoy fresh air along the way? My grandpa biked eight miles to work for years and loved it. These ideas are far from new.

Indeed, what’s old is new again. Green building, bicycle commuting and farmers markets are refreshingly old. That is why those of us seeking to live lightly on our earth must approach sustainable living with humility. What can we learn from our elders? What can we learn from indigenous populations? What can the natural systems of insects, plants, and rainforests teach us about how to design cities? What were the old marketplace models that resulted in lively public squares, supported local farmers and resulted in a congenial populace? If our favorite cities we love to wax poetic about were designed before the invention of the automobile, why do we keep designing and living in cities that are the exact opposite of this?

Contemporary economists, city planners and bureaucrats are finally starting to realize that these issues form an interdependent web. Renovating our cities – like Copenhagen did in the 1970’s – so that people can get to work, school and shopping errands car-free has a tremendously positive affect on our economy, our health, and our communities. And while some of these renovations require large up-front investments (such as new light rail), many of our economic and social woes can be solved by low-tech, inexpensive solutions – such as creating informal bike sharing programs, produce exchanges and parklets. Both are needed to set our cities up for economic success.

Walking and biking is more cost efficient than driving a car – not just because of the direct expenses to car owners but because car infrastructure (including parking) is much more expensive to taxpayers than bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. Walking and biking’s direct link to buying local helps keep wealth within the community since many small business owners live in town – in contrast to a corporation headquartered in another city. There is nothing new about the idea of walking down the street and supporting your local shop owner or bicycling your child to school. These ideas are very ‘main street’ and American as apple pie. They are fiscally conservative and efficient.

So before you hop in that SUV to Walmart with your restless kindergartener in tow, consider instead the far-reaching effects that riding a tandem to your local store will have on your child, yourself and your city. For starter’s, your kid will love it – and joyful living is the most important ingredient to any successful community. Imagine if 10 of your friends did the same. This is how the change to localism happens: slowly, intentionally, and humbly. Old school.

April Economides is the president of Green Octopus Consulting, which helps business districts realize triple bottom line success through old school ideas like bike-buy local programs and public space creation. She manages the City of Long Beach’s Bike Saturdays and Bike-Friendly Business District programs.